You may expect sparks to fly in a documentary about an Indiana town whose citizens voted 76 percent in favor of the liberal punching bag who now occupies the White House. But nothing as simplistic as Trump-bashing — though that would be so satisfying — would ever occur to Frederick Wiseman, a master chronicler of American institutions (a hospital, a zoo, a racetrack, public school, a boxing gym, a police department). In more than a half-century of filmmaking, Wiseman, now 88, has always put journalistic integrity at the forefront of his documentaries, from the controversial 1967 work Titicut Follies (about a state prison for the criminally insane) to last year’s Ex Libris — The New York Public Library. The elderly verité statesman has admitted that bias can show up in the editing, but he refuses to rely on narration or similar signposts to tell audiences what he’s thinking … or more importantly, what they should think.
There’s no fake news in a Wiseman documentary. Monrovia, Indiana is his 42nd nonfiction feature and it’s rigorously non-judgemental. The farming town of Morovia (population 1,063), a part of Morgan County, is mostly white, aging, Republican, pro-gun and pro-God, but not necessarily in that order. A gun lobby ad states: “Welcome to Indiana, home to a million concealed carry permits; enjoy your stay. ” Notice is taken of fields sprouting corn and soybeans, of cattle being numbered for sale. Wiseman’s camera follows the good folks into church at weddings and funerals. He listens to them in barber shops, beauty parlors and restaurants, follows them into town council meetings where the lack of workable fire hydrants is seriously and lengthily considered. Trump is never addressed directly. Monrovians don’t talk politics, or at least Wiseman doesn’t show them doing so. When a group of Hells Angels vrooms past on their hogs, it’s like a thunderclap. And another scene, with a vet, amputating the tail of a dog, plays like a horror film in this context.
What is he aiming to show us in this impressionistic look at business as usual in our aging republic? Recent Wiseman docs, such as At Berkeley and In Jackson Heights bustled with activity on a culturally diverse landscape. In this rural American town, citizens don’t advance growth — they worry about it, expressing concern about letting too much of the outside in. At two-and-a-half hours, Monrovia, Indiana often feels static and low-key to a fault. As always, Wiseman is working hard at being fair, refusing to condemn or even condescend to what his camera sees. Still, the thought persists that just maybe this portrait of a closed-off and threatened heartland is indicative of what goes on in the polling booth where folks vote their fears in silence. And that is a scary proposition, indeed.